As Federal investigators look for the cause of the Amtrak derailment in Washington, that left three dead and dozens hospitalized, the question still remains – with the available technology, why are train derailments still occurring with such frequency?
The brand new train traveled its maiden voyage on upgraded tracks 50 miles south of Seattle and suddenly left the tracks careening off an overpass onto I-5. Investigators confirmed that the train was traveling 80 mph while attempting to handle a curve with a 30-mph speed limit. The black box recovered from the rear push engine indicated that there was no attempt at manual braking by the operator, but the brakes were applied automatically by the trains safety system, albeit too late. It is also in question whether the driver was distracted by the presence of a conductor in the cabin.
The National Transportation Safety Board is still trying to determine if any other factors played a part such as track problems, the number one cause of train derailments. Without the proper banking or track radius, the centrifugal force of a speeding train has been the cause of many fatal train derailments in the past.
Safety Technology in Place but Not Activated
Despite Cascades ten years of planning, rerouting, track upgrades and testing with an investment of $181 million, much from a federal grant with a 2017 deadline, positive train control (PTU) the automatic braking technology, integrated between cars and tracks to detect dangerous situations and stop trains, had not been switched on. Congress had mandated the implementation of PTU following a fatal Metrolink collision in LA County in 2008. The mandate required PTC in place on all railroads that carry passengers and/or potentially toxic freight by 2015. Despite the upgraded trains and tracks in Washington being equipped for the technology, the system was not scheduled to be activated corridor-wide until 2018.
Whether or not PTC would have prevented this crash will eventually be determined but it certainly appears that it would. PTC is designed to deploy in the case of human error, which accounts for 40 percent of train accidents by maintaining operation within speed limits, while obeying signals and following other rules. The Federal Railroad Administration has called PTC the “single most important rail safety development in more than a century.”
Since the 2008 Metrolink accident nearly a decade ago, more deadly train wrecks have occurred in Philadelphia, the Bronx, New Jersey and now Washington, yet there appears to be no urgency on the part of rail companies and legislators on nationwide PTC implementation. Due to the fact the mandate is exceedingly costly and complicated, with many hurdles both regulatory and logistical, companies have been strapped alone with the issue, since Congress left it’s order largely unfunded. With so little federal funding available, regional passenger rail companies opt to invest in faster and more frequent service.
It will be the responsibility of the NTSB to apportion blame in this horrific accident and some will likely go to Amtrak, however the nations largest rail passenger rail carrier has little influence on PTC implementation. Amtrak owns only three percent of the tracks on which it operates. Private freight operators like BNSF own the other 97 percent. These companies are largely focused on freight and have been historically sluggish when grappling with regulators over the cost and deadlines of PTC and are rarely penalized.
The Trump administration’s new federal budget cuts deeply into Amtrak funding despite a Presidential tweet, following the Washington derailment, calling for quick approval of a proposed infrastructure plan.
Train Accident Litigation
As in the LA County, Philadelphia, Bronx and New Jersey train accidents, the Washington tragedy will undoubtedly spur many personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits. The findings of the NTSB as to the apportionment of blame will be key in naming defendants in what will be very complex litigation.
Vititoe Law Group is a California personal injury law firm. If you or a loved one were injured or you lost a loved one in an accident involving public transportation call 818-851-1886 to schedule a free, no obligation, evaluation of your case. As you have read, these cases are very complex in nature and only an experienced public transportation lawyer is qualified to represent you against the powerful legal teams in the transportation industry. Whether you were a passenger or employee, we want to speak with you.